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The Autopsy of Jane Doe: The dead have their secrets too


- A seemingly dead corpse proves to be a hell of a lot of trouble for coroner Tommy Tilden and his son, Austin, in André Øvredal’s first English-language film

The Autopsy of Jane Doe: The dead have their secrets too
Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch in The Autopsy of Jane Doe

Celebrated for his wildly entertaining sci-fi mockumentary, Troll Hunter [+see also:
film review
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interview: Andre Øvredal
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(2010), Norwegian director André Øvredal comes to this year’s BFI London Film Festival with The Autopsy of Jane Doe, a macabre tale, with plenty of surprise scares and squirmy close ups of the bodily interior of the supine titular character. Slated as the "gala film for the cult strand", the title is sure to be a winner amongst horror genre fans with Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch giving stellar performances as the father-son coroner duo who struggle to endure a hellish night of supernatural activity during a not so routine autopsy. 

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An unidentified murdered woman, whose body is discovered in the basement of a crime scene, lands on the autopsy table of coroners Tommy Tilden (Cox) and his son Austin (Hirsch). The sheriff needs a cause of death by the end of the night. As the autopsy progresses, and the deeper they probe into her body, with the examination of organs revealing more ghastly injuries, which raise more questions than they answer, the stranger the environment around them becomes, eventually transforming into something terrifying. It is impossible not to physically feel the nerve-wracking build-up of suspense with every cut made by the Tildens' scalpel. 

Cox and Hirsch make a fine a pair as Tommy and Austin, showing enough signs of three-dimensionality in their characters to save them from being flattened into stock horror caricatures. On the surface, Tommy is the pragmatic pedantic father, who treats Austin with the appropriate amount of condescension one would expect in such a workplace relationship between father and son. But beneath such superficialities, Tommy is emotionally closed, nursing a gruff attitude and hiding behind a sardonic sense of humour. For example, he tells Austin’s girlfriend, Emma (Ophelia Lovibond), that he ties a cowbell around the corpses’ ankles to ensure they are dead – a morbid joke that returns later in the film, only under wholly different circumstances. Austin, though compelled to remain by his father’s side, dreams of bigger things and has plans to leave the family business with Emma. 

Confined almost exclusively to the labyrinthine underground location of the morgue, with dark wood-panelled hallways and branching corridors leading off into shadowy and dusty rooms emanating a creeping and foreboding sensation that only strengthens with time, Øvredal manages to completely envelop us in the space, never allowing us above ground for a breather. The sense of claustrophobia and entrapment is completed by a storm raging outside, eventually imprisoning the Tildens when the power fails and the elevator stops working.

Øvredal does not shy away from showing gore or blood, unabashedly forcing the viewer to experience every incision made into the Jane Doe’s body, with the camera coldly recording the autopsy process. The repeated close-up shots of the woman’s pale, lifeless face, contrasted by her piercing grey eyes, heighten our disconcertion at having to bear witness to such a gruesome procedure. The dread of such scenes is amplified by a truly chilling sound design; with the crisp sounds of scalpel cutting flesh, and bones being cracked coupled with old pop music blaring statically from a radio. 

However, Øvredal does not dwell on such moments, nor does the presentation of the violence committed to the body feel gratuitous. Instead it is a necessary component of the storytelling process.

As with his previous work, Øvredal has proven himself capable of playing within the conventions of genre, while simultaneously reimagining those boundaries in new and exciting ways.  

The Autopsy of Jane Doe was produced by British company 42, and US outfits IM Global and Imposter Pictures. It was acquired by IFC Midnight for distribution.

Our 60th BFI London Film Festival coverage is run in collaboration with the UK National Film and Television School's MA in Film Studies, Programming and Curation.

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